Growing up in Oakland, I used to love to wander downtown and look at the buildings. I went downtown a lot. That’s what teenagers do, they hang out downtown. We would go to the old Capwell’s or Liberty House for … Continue reading
I grew up in Oakland. I’ve seen a myriad of change, some good, some not. The streets of my childhood were constantly changing, adapting. To progress, to the passage of time, and even, on occasion, to the forces of nature beneath the earth’s crust. I mark many of these changes with the establishments that offered the foods I’ve loved and lost. The incomparable Lakeshore Deli, where I would accompany my grandfather for snacks of sliced prosciutto and fresh-baked foccacia. Grand Avenue was home to Mitch and Jim’s, a steak joint awash in red leather upholstery and dark-paneled interior. It was classically Mad Men, the atmosphere so thick with the testosterone of the sixties that it wrapped around you like the ribbons of smoke that curled dreamily from my Grandfather’s cigars at the end of a meal. Mitch’s served this fantastic salad of beefsteak tomatoes, purple onions and anchovies. I savor it still in my memory. As time passed, new places replaced the old. The Pewter House, the old Victoria Station on the Estuary. Each held some special dish that I would return to experience again and again. All are long gone.
If Oakland wasn’t currently alive with new culinary adventures, I might have time or inclination to mourn them. But I don’t. In my hometown these days, the options for dining are myriad and delightful.
These “ghosts of restaurants past” have made way for a new kind of progress. Penrose, the embodiment of the modern restaurant, is located on Grand Avenue. It is next door to The Alley, one of the last icons of Oakland’s vaguely dusty past. Unlike its antiquated neighbor, the decor at Penrose is open and airy, the delicately vaulted ceilings suggesting more the interior of a Tahoe ski lodge, than the occluded and secretive trysting dens of the fifties that lingered well into the disco era. The only smoke in the air at Penrose is the delicate scent of wood burning slowly, in the cavernous ovens in which they prepare, well, just about everything, except maybe the ice cream.
The food was remarkable. I’m getting used to that, in this age of fresh and local and carefully crafted bites. Our meal was simple, and perfect in its simplicity. There were no complex flavors murking up the flavor profiles, the ingredients were in the forefront of each bite.
We were starving, so we ordered the flatbread and dips to get things started. The bread was remarkable. Simple, the heat from the oven still kissing its surface, the streaked brown crust bubbling with the delicate flavor of the smoky oven. It reminded me of the food to be had at a campfire, all that much better for having been prepared over an open flame. The trio of sauces were solid, consisting of a delicate harissa, a spicy charmoula & a creamy tahini yogurt. We promptly ordered a second go round of that fantastic bread with which to consume them, and with the bread arrived a lovely helping of house made ricotta, which is a bit like a slightly dense buratta in texture, as well as taste. We followed the bread with a plate of the panko-crusted pork strips. Those puffy golden fingers of air were hot enough to make one take notice. There is something about food that’s piping hot, cooled only enough not to burn the soft palate, that carries the flavors to the tastebuds in a palpable way, a way a lukewarm bite cannot.
The options on the menu at Penrose are graduated, going from share-sized portions, to heartier options, meant to be enough for an individual main. The Ahi Tartare my son-in-law ordered was a light, delicate serving of beautiful fish, the consistency of not quite room-temperature butter and just a hint of citrus to round things out.
My daughter ordered the game hen, which had been boned and roasted to perfection. I had the quail, which was moist, with a beautifully roasted, golden crust of a skin. Hubs had the salmon, which was likewise buttery and moist. Every dish had a thread of simplicity running through its preparation. We all hear about “local, fresh ingredients” making the difference. How many talking heads at the Food Network have repeated the meme that we must let the flavors of the foods speak for themselves. Having tasted the theory in its best practice, I finally understand the idea on a primal level. The fowl tasted like fowl in its best iteration, an exterior crisp from the grill, the meat still juicy and moist. The vegetables tasted like the colors in the rainbow, a green that resonated with spring, the yellows sweet and sunny with flavor. I found myself marveling all the way through dinner at how the chef had captured their essence and left it on the plate. That’s not to say I don’t like complicated food, but simple food is spectacular when done correctly. Sublime, even.
Given that we were celebrating, we ordered several desserts. They did not disappoint. A glorious buttery pound cake with fresh glazed strawberries, a magnificent citrus granita, a bread pudding that was a cross between french toast and pudding, and a light crispy meringue floating atop a creamy pudding. Every one of them was just sweet enough without being so saccharine as to grate on the teeth after our savory courses.
By the time we finished we were blissed out, which is the way one should always leave a restaurant. Stepping out into the familiar street, I was reminded again of the evolution of Oakland into a real contender in the food scene. We’ve gone straight from the familiar comforts of the past, into the surprising and artistic entertainment that is our culinary present. Perhaps the restaurants that went before were meant to set the stage for what we have become. Perhaps they were the best we could do at the time, given how small the repertoire was for a local chef before the food of the world’s cuisines began to bleed together into something unique and completely now. Either way, Penrose is a must-visit stop in Oakland’s ever growing list of places to break bread. So check it out, make a lasting memory of your own. Bon Appetito!
3311 Grand Ave
Oakland , CA
Just before I left for Italy in 1978, my grandfather told me I must check in on our family. He said that he wanted me to give them some money, and handed me $200.00. Grandpa Gianni had been sending them cash since he left Italy in the early teens, but to my modern sensibilities, shoving wads of cash at family seemed rather crass, not to mention awkward, but I decided to size up the situation before making any final decisions.
When we finally arrived in the tiny village of Scurtabo, nestled in the rolling hills of Genoa, it took us a full day to find my family home. Ultimately, after a lengthy conversation with the local parish priest, we were directed to a small stone farmhouse on a hill, and deposited at the residence of my great-aunt Annunziata and her son, Nunzio. It was beautiful. I asked her, in broken Italian, where my grandfather had been born. Her answer was stunningly simple, as she pointed to a second small building holding only a straw bed. “proprio qui” she responded, pointing to the bed. “Right here.” It took a few minutes for me to absorb that. The continuity of history that lay within this these walls, so far from my home in California, where my grandfather had immigrated so many years ago. I could see my grandfather running about these hills as a child, playing next to the home his father had built for the family at the turn of a different century. It was, to put it mildly, trans-formative.
After a brief tour of the property, we gathered in the kitchen for a meal. Seated around a small wooden table, perched atop a floor of pounded dirt, where live chickens scurried about like house pets. The sweet, country breeze came into the room through the glass-less square holes in the walls that served as windows, unimpeded by any semblance of curtains. My great-aunt bustled in her kitchen, her black head scarf and dress creating the illusion that she had stepped out of another time, as she loaded the table with homemade salumi and a variety of cheeses, accompanied by fresh baked bread and, of course, red wine. It was, in its simplicity, one of the best meals I have ever tasted. There were five in my party, and she fed us all to the point where we could eat no more. At the conclusion of the meal, Nunzio brought out a keg of what I believed to be grappa, and began to pour. But when I asked him if it were grappa, he shook his head and replied, “No, è il brandy.” So we drank his “brandy” and raised our glasses to new-found family. When we finally got up to leave, it was almost dark. I kissed my great-aunt good-bye and pressed all my remaining cash into her hand, finding ultimately, it was among the most natural acts of my life. This woman had entertained me by emptying her larder, and had done so without hesitation. She and her son would willingly go hungry, in order that visiting family had a memorable meal in her home. And that, dear readers, is the definition of what it means to eat at a peasant’s table.
You never leave hungry and you always feel welcome. No matter the unspoken cost to your host.
Bibimbap (with spicy pork, and the requisite egg)
When I eat any form of peasant food in a restaurant, I am reminded of this ethos. Of the staples provided at a peasant’s table. The flavors, the abundance and most importantly, the vibrant hospitality that is provided the diner with every bountiful bite. If it’s done right, a simple meal is as satisfying and rewarding as any to be found at a 3-star Michelin establishment. The peasant’s table offers no distractions, no sleight of hand, only the food and its flavors. The history of its people comes through, as their story is recounted through every mouthful, the flavors recalling all the meals that have been laid out before, in just the same way, for all the generations of guests that have come before you. Bowl’d Korean in Oakland provides just such a meal, and does so with an effortless grace. The simple rituals of Korean tradition replayed, in lilting melody, for the guest dining with them in that moment. The staff at Bowl’d captures the song of the peasant to perfection. They are welcoming and informative, cheerily letting you know what they have laid before you and delightfully invested in their guests enjoyment of each savory bite. I was reminded of my great-aunt’s table (and my cousin Nunzio’s “brandy”) as I read the instructions on how to serve one another the Soju, an ancient rice, grain and sweet potato alcohol that reminds one very much of that peasant brandy consumed in the hills of Italy so many years ago.
We began our meal by sampling the little bowl of Myulchi Bokum (salted, crispy fried anchovies), a traditional finger food to whet the appetite for the meal about to be served. They were fascinating, the little silver tidbits in a tiny silver bowl beckoned and glittered, as though each one had a story to be told. It felt as though I was actually eating in Korea.
Never having yet formally had a Bibimbap, except perhaps a “reinvented” sampling at a Food Truck festival, I felt obligated to begin there, selecting a spicy pork as my protein for the dish. The flavors were astounding, each bit of crispy rice at the bottom of my bowl felt like finding tiny, hidden bits of treasure. Another ritual. Perhaps the best thing about eating at a traditional Korean BBQ place aside from the abundance of flavor, is the infinite combination of same in each bite. That ritual, the blending of banchan with each mouthful of Bibimbap, creating a choose-your-own-adventure of flavors, was a form of interacting with the food that provides a second level of enjoyment. Bowl’d maintains that tradition by setting the table with limitless banchan side dishes, each a marvel to be experienced in its own right, or blended in combination with a mouthful of another dish. The banchan is served initially in small portions, so that the diners may select their favorites and call for refills. The servers were attentive, bringing generous portions of our table’s particular banchan favorites immediately upon obtaining our selections. Our server was thrilled to see our enthusiasm for the meal, and her attitude kept us engaged in the experience without ever feeling hovered over. She had the natural ability to host, and it all felt very personal, and it was good.
We also sampled the Fried Chicken, which arrived as a large portion of steaming hot chicken fresh from the fryer. It was so fresh we could hardly handle the pieces with our fingers, inside the beautiful golden crust, the meat was moist and delicate. One among us tried the Soondubuchigae (Spicy Tofu Stew) , adding pork and a “yes” to the egg. The raw egg is cracked at the table and added to the hot bowl of soup, to be left to cook for the duration of eating the dish. I’ve never seen anything like it, and the interaction added to the experience immensely.
So the bottom line is that eating at Bowl’d provided us exactly that which I seek in the perfect dining experience. A bit of ritual, a sense of hospitality, and flavor, flavor, flavor. It’s no wonder that folks like Anthony Bourdain call this food the perfect eating experience. It just is.
I cannot wait to return and sample some of the other dishes from the extensive menu. Bowl’d BBQ Korean Stone Grill is a restaurant whose music will definitely be added to my “replay” list.
As always, I say check it out for yourself, and make some memories of your own!
Bowl’d BBQ Korean Stone Grill
4869 Telegraph Ave
Oakland, CA 94609
b/t 48th St & 49th St in Temescal, North Oakland
Phone: (510) 654-2000